My heart gladdened when I found the story of Ben Barres, the first openly transgender scientist accepted into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. I came out three years ago as gender queer to my friends and family. I have resolved to stay open about my identity. I often think of what legacy I want to leave behind. For those who identify as transgender, gender queer, or non-binary in the sciences, there is no better role model than Ben Barres. Let me tell you why.
Ben Barres wrote his autobiography over the course of a few years. He started after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and passed away in December of 2017. He preserved his story in the book The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist.
The Life of a Transgender Scientist
This is the section where I felt most connected with Ben’s journey. Reading about his own feelings of gender confusion got to me. Like him, I had no words growing up for what I was experiencing. One of the formative moments of my life was watching the film Now and Then. Christina Ricci duct taping her breasts to appear flat-chested was memorable. I wanted to do the same.
Ben had a similar experience reading the story of transgender advocate Jamison Green. That is when he first learned the word transgender, while he was in graduate school. Unable to tell anyone of his personal experiences, he had endured stress and thoughts of suicide. In that same interview with Green, he found a listing for a clinic that would help him transition.
At this point in the book, Ben points out his privilege. He was already a tenured professor. He did not have to fear losing his job. This is still something transgender people face every day — not only the fear of losing their job but also the threat of physical violence and death. Trans women of color are especially vulnerable. This is also a timely issue as the current administration rolls back hard-won civil rights battles. There are many reasons why calls have spiked in the past few years at suicide hotlines. There is a dedicated line for those who identify as transgender.
The other takeaway in this section of this book is the importance of mentorship. Ben was fortunate to find two great mentors, David P. Corey and Martin C. Raff, who supported him throughout his career and advised him on several academic decisions. Ben himself took his role as a mentor seriously, advocating on behalf of his students and giving them the freedom to make choices. His students made many important advancements in the study of glia and this has much to do with Ben’s mentorship skills. He wrote about the importance of finding good mentors in this article for Neuron.
This section ends with Ben encouraging people to be open about their identity.
“LGBT students and postdocs at Stanford and other institutions frequently contact me to discuss whether or not to be open in their applications to various training programs. I always counsel them to be open about who they are, as it seems to me that currently the advantages far outweigh the risks….It is very difficult to live life in a closet. It does not make sense to do this because of an occasional bigot.”– Ben Barres, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist
The Work of a Transgender Scientist
Ben made many important contributions to the study of glial cells. He was a leader in the field when he started his lab a Stanford. He had developed methods for culturing these cells as a student.
These methods would be the precursor to important discoveries. Before these methods, scientists believed that glial cells where passive, supporting neurons and nothing more. Ben’s lab was able to prove that they have importance in the development and pruning of neurons. They also showed the cells’ involvement in neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.
The Advocacy of a Transgender Scientist
Ben’s early life experiences made him aware that science wasn’t a meritocracy. He saw that women were not treated with respect in the sciences. As an undergraduate student at MIT, he faced such discrimination from a professor.
“I was offended because he was unfairly and wrongly accusing me of cheating. It was many years before I realized that his meaning was deeply sexist — he just couldn’t believe a woman had solved the problem when so many men had been unable to.”
This wasn’t the only time Ben would notice gender bias. Ben wrote the indelible essay “Does Gender Matter?” to refute Larry Summer’s statement about women’s lack of ability in science. He tells us in his autobiography, “When faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race or gender they are crossing a line that should not be crossed — the line that divides responsible free speech from verbal violence.”
Ben ends the book with an important message to readers: It is up to everyone to lessen the barriers that women and other marginalized groups face.
A Transgender Scientist Paves the Way
Ben was a pioneer in science and in life. On all accounts, the people whose lives he touched were changed for the better. He was not only a leader in neurobiology but a mentor to many young scientists. He will be remembered for his advocacy and the candid way in which he lived his life.
As I begin my journey into mathematics, I will take the lessons of this book with me. Visibility matters. I wish to remain open about my queer identity. I want to seek out the stories that don’t make the media, so when I meet a kid, I can tell them about the great people who made important discoveries who they won’t find in their textbooks. Hopefully, I can continue this link of inspiration to the next generation.
June 11, 2019: The first paragraph under “The Advocacy of a Transgender Scientist” was edited because of language that misgendered Ben’s early experiences.